27 October 2011

Occupy Oakland

The first version of this piece was written from an Occupy Oakland campsite on October 17 and published in Occupy! An OWS-Inspired Gazette last week. The Oakland Police destroyed the campsites in the early morning of October 25 and met protests that evening with tear gas and violent force. A new section has been appended to reflect these developments.

October 17

I just woke up in my tent at Occupy Oakland. This is the first night my husband and I (and our dog) have camped out here, and although I can’t say we slept well over the sounds of the city and people talking into the early hours of the morning, we woke up still deeply enthused and excited to be part of such an event in Oakland.

We’ve been stopping by the encampment pretty regularly since it started last Monday. It’s in downtown Oakland, in Frank Ogawa Plaza, which is right in front of the city hall. Within hours of the protest starting, there were signs renaming the location. The new name: Oscar Grant Plaza.

Frank H. Ogawa was a Japanese American who was a long time Oakland City Council member. He had served time during WWII in a concentration camp. He died while the plaza was being renovated and so it was renamed in his honor. Oscar Grant was a young African American man who was fatally shot by BART ( Bay Area Rapid Transit) police on New Year’s Day, 2009. The case, which made headlines nationwide, has become a symbol of the city’s problem of police brutality and racial inequality. The movement for justice that has emerged from Oscar Grant’s shooting has no doubt played a powerful role in how Occupy Oakland has been organized.

It was clear from the first signs that went up at the encampment, and the first organizers who spoke, that Oscar Grant Plaza was going to be as much about addressing and healing Oakland’s wounds as it was about uniting the 99 percent. This was not going to be an encampment that ignores issues of race, class, nationality and gender-–and as I’ve found out over the past few days, in at least some ways, they’ve also been trying to address issues of disability.

Although I’m the only wheelchair user I’ve seen staying at the camp (which doesn’t mean I necessarily am), the Bay Area’s disability community has been coming out to support the events and participate in the protest. This weekend over 2,500 people made it to Oscar Grant Plaza for a march and rally calling for “Jobs Not Cuts.” Among the protesters were many individuals from various unions, including SEIU. CUIDO, a radical activist group made up of disabled people and allies, was also present. CUIDO, which stands for, Communities United In Defense of Olmstead (a landmark court decision that declared that disabled people have a right to live in their own communities), is no stranger to protest encampments. In the summer of 2010, dozens of members of CUIDO camped out in tents on a median in Berkeley to protest the proposed budget cuts to services poor, elderly and disabled folks rely on. Arnieville (named after our then Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger) was a remarkably accessible tent city and thrived for over a month.

Although Oscar Grant Plaza has yet to be as accessible to a broad range of disabled people as Arnieville, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how an awareness of disability has been at least somewhat present over the past week. Ableism was mentioned during the General Assembly meeting as an issue that the “Safe Place”committee wanted to address, and I’ve seen signs for “access for all,”demanding people keep ramps clear.

Still, seven days into the protest there is no longer any room for tents on the plaza’s large lawn. Tents are squeezed together so tightly that in many areas there is no room to move in between them, for me in my wheelchair or for someone who walks. There is more access to the community tents. There is a free school, an art station, a Sukkot tent, a medical tent, a children’s area, a people of color tent, and a quite remarkable food station, where huge batches of soups and beans are made, and tea, coffee, and healthy snacks seem to be abundant. The various projects the camp is working on include installing solar panels, and reclaiming parts of the park as a community garden.

One of the most amazing aspects of being at Oscar Grant Plaza is witnessing how moved people are. People who may never have said a word to each other a week ago are now neighbors. The General Assembly meetings, which happen every evening, are often very beautiful. Of course people bicker, or get bored, or are sometimes disrespectful, but much of the time the meetings are thoughtful and patient.

The assembly talked very vulnerably about issues ranging from how to deal with sexism and violence at the campsite, to what role alcohol and partying should play in the encampment. We talked about the complexity of discouraging certain behaviors like drinking and partying, while also trying to respect people’s individual freedoms. There was a strong sense of support, for watching out for each other, and of not wanting to give the police or the city any reason to try to kick us out. The Security Committee, which enlists volunteers to take shifts watching out for the campers throughout the night, encouraged more people to sign up.

Negotiating what different people want for the atmosphere of the camp is undoubtedly a challenge. Some of the protesters seem adamant that there can’t be a revolution without a party, while others repeated numerous times that although they weren’t strangers to partying themselves, “this camp is not Burning Man!”

Participating in this movement is intimidating in many ways, especially for people who are shy, or those who feel that there is no one “like them” at the protests. I’m certainly intimidated by camping with strangers, by being one of the only visibly disabled people present, and by the lack of access and simple comforts. However, I want to be out there, because I realize this sort of opportunity to come together doesn’t happen every day. But also, I want to be there because I am hella proud of Oakland for creating this sort of encampment—an encampment that often fails in its desire to be a safe and accessible place for all people, but that is nonetheless trying.


October 27

Early Tuesday morning, Occupy Oakland encampments at Oscar Grant Plaza and Snow Park were raided and destroyed by police. There were numerous reports of excessive use of force and violence. Nearly 100 people were arrested and held on $10,000 bail. The emergency text alert system, which apparently had over 1,000 people signed on, failed to go off for many people, and so occupiers were left alone to defend the camps in the early hours of the morning. The police blocked off streets, rerouted buses, and shut down the closest BART stop. Because of the police blockade, it was reportedly next to impossible for media or legal observers to see the raid. Photos from the raided Oscar Grant Plaza show an utterly destroyed encampment, with tents cut up and intentionally destroyed.

At 4 PM that day, people who had not been arrested, as well as supporters of Occupy Oakland, rallied at the Oakland public library to show support of those arrested and outrage over the destruction of the camps. What began as a rally and march of about 500 people turned into a march of thousands. We marched through Oakland reclaiming our streets and demanding our parks be returned to us. Over and over again, we were met with tear gas and extreme police force. Many people were injured, including Scott Olsen, a 24-year-old veteran who survived two deployments to Iraq. He was hit in the head with a police projectile (either a tear gas canister or a flash bang grenade) and was in critical condition up until last night when he was downgraded to serious but stable condition. Videos show that as protesters rushed into help the man, police threw another teargas canister or flash bang grenade at them. One photo shows a woman in a wheelchair, a member of CUIDO, in a cloud of tear gas. The energy, although often very scary, was amazing—passionate and brave and dedicated. The protesters vowed to be out there every evening at 6 PM until our parks were reclaimed.

As the world turned its attention to Oakland, my partner and I had to leave, taking the red eye out that night to NY for a family engagement. We are both glued to the reports that have been flooding in of the amazing rally that took place last night. 3,000 people reclaimed Oscar Grant Plaza, tearing down (and neatly stacking) the fence the police had encircled the plaza with. There seems to have been very little police presence. The gathering held a general assembly where nearly 1,600 people voted on proposals of what to do next. The general assembly passed a decision to have a general strike and mass day of action next Wednesday, November 2nd.

As the website for Occupy Oakland says, “The whole world is watching Oakland. Let’s show them what’s possible.”

Image: Police prepare to enter Occupy Oakland's City Hall encampment, October 25, 2011, Oakland, CA. From cryptome.org.

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